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Forgive the delay in this gripping series of enemas and ghee drinking shenanigans. Since I got back from India, I’ve been swamped trying to catch up with life and bills and the consumption of fried cheeselike things. I’ve also been hobnobbing with Dan Savage (by hobnobbing I mean we talked on the phone for 10 minutes) recently, which was super exciting and awesome. I was on his podcast talking about this Salon essay I wrote about how San Francisco fucked up my sexuality.
Moving on then. After you’ve completed your internal oleation (aka drinking butter) around Day 4, they start you on the external oleation (aka full-body oil massage, followed by a steam bath). Sounds like a spa day, yeah? And it kind of was, and was mostly not unpleasant, but only when comparing it to the previous days’ regimen of dry heaving and shitting everywhere. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. It wasn’t THAT bad. I never swore or cried once during the oil massages, not even when they karate chopped my face and slapped my feet like they had just swore in church. “Bad feet! Sister Mary Clampett is so disappointed in you.”
The steam bath was a smallish, steel box, with a hole cut out of the top for your head to stick out of, as if you were dressing up as a breadbox for Halloween. Inside the box was a bench for me to sit on, with a steal bar strategically placed to push on my lower spine, which afforded the least amount of comfort possible and therefore led me to believe was purchased at some sort of sex dungeon clearance sale. Once I was in there, they covered my eyes and my heart and the top of my head with wet cloths, and left me to blanch. “Steam come?” said My Sadist, and I tried to nod in a way that wouldn’t dislodge my various wetnaps. After a few minutes, the sweat started to drip off me in places I didn’t know had pores, and I was naked and wearing only a mesh loin cloth, and so of course I started thinking about sex, and whether this kind of immobilization/heat therapy/spine torture was someone’s fetish. It must be, I thought. There’s a fetish for everything. Chewing ice. Popping balloons. Girls who fart on cakes. (I would link to these, but I already get enough lascivious Google search returns, so I’ll leave that excavating to y’all).
Throughout my treatments, My Sadist and My Younger Sadist would whisper to each other in their Kannada dialect, of which I know approximately 7 words, all of which relate to bread (chapati, roti, paratha, kulcha, poori, dosa, naan, lest you think I’m exaggerating) and then they would laugh. Which I obviously thought meant they were mocking me. Even more so when they did it during the aforementioned foot-slapping. “You should see this one,” I imagined them saying. “It’s like she’s never been scalded with hot bags of rosemary before!” In reality, I’m sure they weren’t talking shit about me, lest it was to talk about my shit. But…no, where was I?
Oh, S&M. I thought about that a lot when I was in the steam box, oleating. I remembered this time in Chicago when I was 25 or so. I went to an S&M meet n’ greet at a dungeon on the North side with S. and this middle-aged professor from Philadelphia who slapped me across the face, and then later cried when I didn’t reciprocate his “love” for me. (Long story, touched upon in this Rumpus essay about guns). But the party was hysterical. It was like a job fair with spanking benches. There were nametags and Triscuits and tiny plates. A septuagenarian in a three-piece suit, whose nametag read something like “Mister Fister,” poured me some apple juice and talked to me about James Baldwin. There were a few people on leashes, but most were in street clothes. I didn’t know what I was doing there exactly, but I loved the weirdness of it all. That last sentence pretty much sums up my whole adult life, actually.
I was suffering then, but I never let anyone know it. I was heartbroken. I was constantly crossing boundaries because I didn’t know where the line was to begin with. I wanted things to be different, but the wanting was a nameless, faceless thing with sharp edges I could only rake myself against. While I was driving to a man’s house, a very sweet man who laughed constantly and asked me why we never went anywhere that wasn’t my bedroom, a question that made me so nervous I never answered it, I called my mom and cried and begged her to talk me out of going to see him. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” she said in her soothing psychologist voice. “You are in charge of your life.” And I don’t know how I’d failed to realize the obvious truth of her words, but it was like her saying so made me believe it, and I felt instantly better.
D. and I were talking about masochism recently. She said I was drawn to it, and I said that was probably true, but that it had nothing to do with sex anymore. I like the impossibly hard, the struggle and the striving make me feel more accomplished. Maybe that’s a terrible way of looking at it. It’s not that I crave hardship, but my ability to weather it instills me with a kind of pride. I can take it, I think. The pain, the waiting, the discomfort of a scalding massage, the discipline of a rigorous Ashtanga practice.
One time I heard my yoga teacher chastising someone from across the room. Someone who didn’t want to do backbends. She looked up at Magnolia from the floor with this pleading face, and Magnolia said, matter-of-factly: “Do it. Do it, even though it’s hard.” I find her words in my ears often now, when I am doing something difficult. Do it, even though it’s hard. Do it, even though not doing it feels safer and easier. Do it because you can, not because you want or don’t want to. It’s not about the failures or the successes. The trying is the reward.
When the panchakarma was over, I got so many compliments about how healthy I looked. “You’re glowing,” a yogi friend said. I felt light and energetic and a little funny, a little not-me. And I didn’t get sick the whole time I was in India, and I’d dread doing it again, but am glad I did it. I even got a few stories out of it, which is really the best a writer can ever hope for.
Read Panchakarma Part 1 here if you missed it.
Whenever people would ask me why I was going to India and I would say “yoga,” there’d often be this pause, like they were waiting for me to say something else, something about temples or enlightenment or The Beatles. If this pause was long enough, I’d throw in an addendum: “I also plan on drinking a lot of coconut water…from coconuts,” hoping this would appease them. On the surface, going to India to do yoga didn’t make a lot of sense. I live in San Francisco, after all. You can’t throw a bong out of a window without it landing on a yoga studio. The city even installed a yoga room in the airport. If there’s something lacking in San Francisco, it’s certainly not places to wear stretchy pants. So why was I traveling 8,000 miles to do something I could just as easily do at home?
Farmboy, fetch me that pitcher
If you don’t know this about me, I respond really well to people who order me around. It’s the fastest way to get me to agree to something (within reason). It’s how I wound up on a trapeze. It’s why I moved to San Francisco. It’s why I started doing ashtanga in the first place (It was also to impress a girl. I’m sure I really wowed her with my ability to fold myself into a sad parenthesis). So when my teacher, Magnolia Zuniga, told me to go to India, I said, Okay! And then I put it off for two years, because I’m not crazy.
This fall she brought it up again, when my stint at Mother Jones was about to end, and I was super bummed they didn’t hire me, and at the thought of being unemployed again in a city I couldn’t afford to be unemployed in. During this time, one of the few consolations was that I would finally have the time to go to India. I started saying this out loud to people, at first because it made my unemployment seem more glamorous than it actually was, which consisted of only wearing clothes with elastic waistbands and drinking things out of measuring cups. But then I started freelancing more, and doing social media for a few places/people, and the thought of going to India started to seem not only possible, but terribly exciting. “I’m going to India!” I would say, and shake my fists close to my chest, as if playing a set of maracas badly.
I told my parents last because they are worriers. If I sneeze more than three times in a row, my dad casually suggests that I go to the ER. When I told them, I didn’t mention the words malaria, dengue fever, intestinal parasites, or any of the other potential hazards that were brought up to me by a woman in a lab coat wielding a syringe, hazards that I promptly ignored because vaccinations are fucking expensive. Plus, I know lots of people who’ve been to Mysore, and they said it was probably going to be fine. So I said, Okay! (I have 4 days left, so knock on wood or pray to fairies or whatever, but I’ve yet to contract any weird jungle diseases this whole 6 weeks).
I have a pretty laissez-faire approach to health care in general, not just with vaccinations. Since I don’t have insurance anyway, I decided to do the truly American thing, which was to outsource my health care to India. Not just because it’s cheaper, though it certainly is that, but because I’ve also grown increasingly tired of Western doctors throwing pills at me regardless of the problem I come in with. I thought I’d see what Indian doctors would throw at me instead. I never dreamed the answer to that would be scalding bags of herbs.
Feeling the burn
As I mentioned last time, I tore my hamstring about 3 years ago, so part of my panchakarma was to specifically address that injury. This entailed the Indian version of Granny Clampet sauteeing my hamstrings for 20-to-30 minute intervals every single day for a week. The process is called kizhi, and it’s supposed to eliminate toxins and release pain from the affected muscles.
At first it feels nice. There’s a little massage bit that happens while the oil is heating up. Once the oil starts to crackle in the pan, however, the bags of herbs are coated and applied to the skin. The more times the bags were pressed to my skin, the more my legs began to flop involuntarily, like a poorly-trained circus walrus. “Holy fuck,” I said, trying to convey my pain to my masseuse, (whose name I actually don’t know because I’m deaf and you can only ask someone to repeat themselves so many times before you just give up and start calling them the word you think sounds like what they might have said, which in this case was Washcloth, but which seemed really disrespectful, so I started referring to her inwardly as My Sadist, which seemed like a truer reflection of our relationship anyway). Anyway, I politely swore at My Sadist, knowing full-well that she was probably not well-versed in the varied connotations of swear words. She knew a little English: Hello, How are you, Pain gone, and Is okay? But mostly we had to rely on body language to communicate. It was how I imagine playing charades in hell must be like.
So, My Sadist would burn me with herbs, and then afterwards, I would thank her, like a good masochist. This is how it went the first couple of days, until I finally became bold enough to ask her to turn the heat down on the portable gas stove. The reason it took 3 days for me to ask an old woman to please not treat my limbs like a bucket meal at Long John Silver’s is because I am terrible at that shit. I basically go through life trying not to inconvenience anyone, even if it’s their job to be inconvenienced. For instance, on the plane ride from Hong Kong to Bangalore I got really thirsty (because the Chinese TSA made me throw out my water, even though I got it ON THE PLANE I HAD JUST LEFT, which I tried to explain, and which failed to rouse any response from them other than polite bowing). Rather than push the button for the stewardess and ask for water, I simply went without. I rationalized this by telling myself that I probably wouldn’t die of dehydration in 6 hours. Besides, they turned the cabin lights off! Clearly that was a sign that water no longer existed on board the aircraft. So, obviously it took me several days to ask My Sadist, who was very sweet when she wasn’t near a skillet, to please stop burning me. Also, as I said, there was a language barrier. I eventually settled on “Less hot please!” accompanied by a wince-y face. And it worked! For about 30 seconds. Whereby she would resume her task of scalding me and I would resume my task of pretending that I wasn’t being scalded.
Coming up next: What does S&M have to do with ayurveda? A lot, if you’re me.
The preceding three days of my panchakarma cleanse at Dixit Health Clinic were spent mostly chillaxing on the rooftop balcony and drinking increasingly larger doses of ghee, aka clarified butter. This process is known as oleation, which sounds nice, doesn’t it? Like something a rainbow might do to a flower. I can tell you now that it is not nice at all, and that even though it’s been several weeks, simply typing the word “ghee” causes my gag reflex to involuntarily kick in, a trigger I imagine is similar to what Linda Lovelace must feel watching hot dog eating competitions.
Anyway. On the fourth day, after I had consumed 120 ml of ghee, followed by completely sincere and appreciated pats on the back from Dixit staffers, Dr. Manassa asked me how many times I had “gone to toilet” that day. I thought about lying. Since coming to India, I had been a regular companion to a great many toilets around Mysore, but on this particular day, I had somehow managed to fail my doody duty. But I’m a terrible liar, so I told her the truth, which was zero times.
“Maybe I ran out?” I said, a little too hopefully. Dr. Manassa looked at me as if I had just licked ghee off the floor. And that’s when I received the enema talk.
If you’ve never had a Third World enema before, allow me to horrify you in very few words. Two strangers, a bucket, and a tube shoved up your ass. They then remove everything in your lower intestine, along with what little remaining dignity you’ve managed to store up since puberty. I had yet to be subjected to this particular treatment, but I’d heard all about it from my fellow cleansers at the clinic. We were there for a week, after all, there was pretty much nothing else to do except literally shoot the shit. After hearing their stories, I decided that firehosing my colon was something to be avoided, if at all possible. But Dr. Manassa was indifferent to my suffering. She told me that if tomorrow was the same, I’d be given a one way ticket to ShitHose Town.
Panchakarma (five actions) is detox system that’s been around for at least a thousand years. It’s tailor-made to support your specific body/mind constitution (dosha), and to address the specific ama (toxins) that are partying in your GI tract and elsewhere. Mine was an 8-day regimen. I came to the panchakarma not for digestive reasons, but as a last ditch effort to cure a hamstring injury that’s been going on for almost three years. I’d tried just about everything at that point, short of leeches and surgery, so I figured I’d give Ayurveda a shot.
A few words about shit
If you don’t hang around that many yogis on a day-to-day basis, you might be surprised to learn that, along with giving too-long hugs and singularly keeping Nag Champa manufacturers in business, yogis love to talk about their digestion. I remember one time at Moksha Yoga in Chicago, a fellow yogi coming out of the bathroom after class, his eyes sparkling in triumph. “You guys,” he said. “I just took the perfect dump. Come look!” While I declined, many others did go and marvel at this supposed pinnacle of poop.
It can be refreshing at times, this kind of honesty. One is never permitted to talk about the activities going on in one’s intestinal tract, in polite company or otherwise. But it is an important signifier of health. And like the book says, Everybody Poops. Except women, obviously. Gross.
Hindsight is 20/20
The next day came, and still my insides remained stubbornly where they’d been for the last day and a half. I tried to mentally prepare myself for my impending enema on the rickshaw ride over by viewing it in karmic terms, and also as a writer and a masochist. When the world sends a tube toward your ass, sometimes you just have to trust that this is part of the universe’s Great Plan. Also, I was kind of curious. But when I got there, I was informed that Dr. Manassa had the day off. PRAISE SHIVA, I thought inwardly, but then felt a twinge of disappointment. I mean, I was already drinking butter, for crying out loud. I didn’t come halfway around the world to do this half-assed. If I wanted optimal health, then shouldn’t my whole ass be involved? But then I was like, “Are you mental? Is the ghee going straight to your brain, and not into your GI tract where it’s supposed to then easily eliminate ama? Stop romanticizing every awful experience like you’re Pete Wentz.” And then I bucked up.
To be continued…
Stay tuned for the next installation of A White Girl in India, where I will tell you about the Indian version of Granny Clampett and how she burned me with bags of hot herbs.
I missed Sugar/Cheryl Strayed‘s coming out party, due to a misfortune of geography, but thanks to Facebook, I feel like I was there. Plus, Wendy MacNaughton illustrated the evening. And my dear friends Pocket Full of Rye performed (Tucson represent!). Sugar answered my letter a few months back, and I made the mistake of reading the comments, some of which did not look upon me favorably (to their credit, I do come off as kind of an asshole). After I read the mean comments, I asked Cheryl to Sugar me a second time, which she did because she’s that awesome.
“Oh honey bun, you know better!” she wrote in an email, which is a wise refrain that I consistently ignore in my own life, even though I give a lot of advice to the contrary. It’s true though. I should know better. People being mean on the Internet is like the understatement of the decade. For every nice comment written, there’ll be 9 trolls, or petty remonstrations, or, occasionally, Ron Paul supporters telling you you should just jump off a cliff already. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written about the most innocuous thing on the planet. Staplers. Capri pants. The color taupe. The asshole comments will come. Usually, The Rumpus is pretty good about deleting them. They have a Thumper-from-Bambi approach to comments, as Isaac once said. But this time, they didn’t. Or maybe they have since, but I’m too scared to check (still) because the letter I wrote to Sugar made me feel especially vulnerable (so much so that I’m reluctant even to post it here).
“You are such a good person,” Sugar said at the end of her email, and I cried and cried. As I did so, I thought of one of her previous columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, where she wrote:
One hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.
This week’s AfterEllen column includes the gayest sentence I’ve ever written, which is something of a feat for me.
E. and I were talking about desire, and I told her I didn’t think there was ever a time in my life when I didn’t have a crush on someone. She said I should try to have a crush on yoga instead.
I’ve spent a lot of time here on the padded plank masquerading as a bed, watching the ceiling fan make its lopsided roundabouts, and looking at too many pictures on Facebook. These memories are not mine, not ours, but maybe a little now that you’ve shared them with me. I try to decipher if the people posing have slept together, what kind of intimacy their postures betray. I am most likely wrong. All intimacy looks like sex to me, which is why I sleep with too many of my friends, which is why some people don’t trust me anymore.
I said to another friend, “There’s this really amazing straight girl who lives across the country…” and she said, “Don’t finish that sentence.”
I should know better. Yet here I am, marveling, marveling.
During my past life healing session, I said I was an Aztec. I said I was upset that I wasn’t born a boy. My healer walked me through all these doors and I told her what was on the other side of them. My “life” was pretty tame. I had a husband and a daughter. I lived to middle age. My hardships were the color purple. It was relaxing at the time, but I don’t know how much of it was just me telling a story.
Why it’s ok to date two people at the same time.
It’s hard for me to sleep here. Partially, it’s the noise, which comes at you from all sides, like you’re sleeping in a treehouse in the middle of an LA freeway. I hear monkeys screeching, but I never see them. The white from the passing headlights lingers on E.’s shoulder while she sleeps, and each time I see it, I think of how back home the light from my phone would wake me whenever I got a late-night text from someone, usually D. I always told myself to turn my phone off, but sometimes it was all I had to feel connected to someone. So I kept it on, all the time. I don’t have a phone here, but still I can’t sleep. When I lay my head down, my body starts swimming. It wants to bathe the days past, the days ahead. I’m both terribly excited to go home and not at all. I’m afraid to start my life again. I’m afraid I can’t keep the promises I’ve made to the soles of my feet as I try and fail to scrub the day’s dirt from them. I’m afraid that I’ll get home and still be me, the one who knows better, but doesn’t try very hard to change the circumstances that warrant the knowing.
When I was giving advice to this man last week, I kept thinking about my own struggles with drinking. It was hard not to throw myself into that column (I still did, somewhat) because once it’s written, then it’s real. Or at least it feels that way. Once it’s written down, it’s much harder to take back. So I don’t really write about drinking, except to make fun of myself. But I’ve been in Mysore a month now and I haven’t had a drop of alcohol and I don’t miss it because it’s not part of the Ashtangi culture. Here we eat smoothies. We go to lunch and talk about doshas and third world enemas and everything seems radical because it’s so ordinary. And I miss my friends back in San Francisco, but not really because we’re still so connected. I know what they’re doing, and I know when I tell them I drink too much, they’ll scoff good-naturedly and say it’s not true. But everything I’ve regretted in the morning, aside from falling for straight girls who live across the country, is due to alcohol. I think about that a lot these days.
But mostly I think about yoga. What are you thinking about?
An friend and I were g-chatting recently, and she asked why I haven’t written about India. I told her I would, but the truth is, I have been writing about it, just not in a creepy Eat Pray Love way. If you’ve read my columns recently (those fancy images in the sidebar –>), you’ll see India all over the place. But subtly, like how one line in one story can suddenly mean everything. It’s like this Rilke poem, which my new friend Angela posted recently in regards to Mysore (she has an amazing Ashtanga blog that you should read as well). The last two lines read:
“for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.”
You must change your life. So simple. So not.
I was thinking, too, about writing, about how writers are expected to narrate their lives, and how this sometimes interferes with the actual living part of the equation. I remember talking to S. about this. She was in the throes of some kinky sex romp one night, and suddenly found herself torn. She told herself she could concentrate on the experience, so she could write about it later, or she could decide to shut her brain off and savor what was happening while it was happening.
She chose the latter, ultimately, and I find myself making this choice more and more, as well. It sounds silly. Why should you have to choose at all? Can’t you do both, live and remember? And yes, of course you can, to an extent. But when you base your life on words, you interact with situations using different parts of your brain and body. In this way, every potential experience becomes something that can be exploited. Sometimes it seems like my life doesn’t exist unless I’m narrating it. This is a horrifying feeling, it’s equivalent to abusing the present. Sometimes this is the best choice a writer can make. Especially if something really unorthodox is happening. But most of the time it isn’t.
Ellie on spirituality vs circus tricks
I have been taking a lot of notes though. I’m almost finished with the journal I started three weeks ago. I’ve filled it with longing, and to-do lists, and diagrams that explain what happens to the nervous system during meditation, according to my teacher Narasimhan. (In case you’re wondering, it looks like a vertical snake getting progressively fatter, while playing the accordion.)
Everyone appears to be in love here, if not with someone than with Mysore itself, the tradition, the lineage. Each day in the afternoon, a line of fire ants endlessly make their way across the fence to the cafe where I’m staying. They can’t quite bridge the gap alone though, so they make a bridge out of other ants. I thought, there’s a metaphor there, but it isn’t important.
This week’s Dear Sugar is amazing, especially this line: “…the whole shebang is stoked by lust. Which is famously unreliable as a life plan.”
People ask me what I do for a living and I get to say “I’m a writer.” It’s been several months now, but it hasn’t gotten old. Each time I say it, I feel giddy. Each time, my heart swells, and I feel a little less alone. That’s one thing about India–I’ve been too busy to be subsumed by any one desire. It’s not like that back home. Back home, I am full of wants. Back home, I fall in love 5-6 times a day.
Stephen Elliott wrote in a Daily Rumpus email recently: “You can change, you can work on yourself in all sorts of ways. You can make small changes in motion, like powdering your nose or changing the CD while driving on the highway. Or you could park for a while and sit on the trunk and really think things through, then start walking. It just depends where you need to be, and when.”
I have nowhere to be here. I have only to be. I like that.
In May of 2008, I wrote in my journal that my goal for the year was to go to India with Ellie. It took me a few extra years, but here I am in Mysore. The circumstances, of course, turned out to be wildly different, but that’s India too. Have no expectations and you’ll be fine.
On the 23 hour plane rides from San Francisco to Hong Kong to Bangalore, I wrote a love letter to a girl that was actually a love letter to me. I won’t send it because writing it was the point. Actually I did send the letter to two of my exes. I wanted them to rein me in. One of them asked why I wrote it and I said because I wanted someone to miss while I’m gone.
I should probably stop referring to them as exes and start referring to them as what they are—friends. It’s weird though, when you share your life with someone and then that stops and picks up again somewhere else and the map you’ve been using no longer means anything so you have to draw another one. The map is still called Love but its street signs are missing. And the Dairy Queen that was on the corner is now a KFC/Taco Bell/Dunkin Donuts. It’s disorienting, for a time. But it works.
I’m friends with all my exes, except for one because I can’t find him. He’s not on Facebook. I think of him every time I go to Tucson though. I think about calling people who used to know him and trying to get his phone number. I think about getting drinks with him at Famous Sam’s even though when I knew him we both didn’t drink. I never do though because he’s married (to the girl he left me for) and I think we’d have nothing to say to one another. We didn’t back then either. We would lay on my bed or we’d skip first period to get breakfast at Waffle House or he’d play songs on guitar. He learned to play Jewel songs for me. I’m pretty sure that’s when I knew I loved him. In return, I bought Metallica’s Black Album and learned to scream along. “Nothing Else Matters” was our song. I’ve had songs with other partners but I don’t remember most of them anymore. Music has too much meaning sometimes. I have to block it out or I’ll never enjoy it again.
The amazing Wendy MacNaughton made me into a cartoon. And Dear Sugar said I was one of her favorite advice columnists. I can officially die now. I probably say that too much, but it’s true. I’m really lucky.
I’m so productive on airplanes. Sometimes I think if I were a rich eccentric, I would rent planes and make them into my cubicle. Sometimes when trying to impress a girl, I’ll tell her I have a pilot’s license. Even though I don’t fly anymore and probably never will because of my bum ears. Sometimes this makes me sad, but mostly it doesn’t. Anyway, I wrote my SF Weekly, After Ellen, and RedEye columns in less than three hours on the plane, which is CRAZY, and is a keen reminder to turn off the fucking Internet once in a while. Sometimes when I can’t write a column, I’ll write a love letter. One was chosen in this collection. Can you guess which one is mine?
I meant to write about India and this is what happened. I guess India will have to wait. We’ve got six weeks to get to know each other. I imagine several love letters will come from this particular affair. Until then, lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu. That’s right, I went there.